I’m somewhat of a thrifting snob. It’s an activity I partake in nearly every weekend, whether I’m elbow-deep in a box of crystal door knobs at an architectural salvage shop, flipping through stacks of framed paintings at my neighborhood thrift store, or haggling over the price of a vintage Persian rug at a flea market. So when I set a date with my mom to visit the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena, California — one of the largest and most revered in North America — I thought I knew what I was getting into.
Held on the second Sunday of every month, the Rose Bowl Flea market is a gathering of nearly 2,500 vendors and 20,000 buyers. The legendary market is spread out over seven square miles and recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Billed as the “world’s most unusual flea market,” you can buy anything from AC/DC concert tees to zebra-print cantilever chairs, and you may even spot a celebrity or two.
While I ultimately scored some incredible finds, there are a few things I would have done differently (the learning curve is steep, my friends). Here are a few takeaways I garnered from my first-ever trip to the Rose Bowl Flea Market.
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1. Arrive as early as possible, even if that means setting your alarm for 4am
Initially, my mom scoffed at my suggestion that we arrive by 7am sharp. Admission prices for the Rose Bowl Flea Market operate on a sliding scale — from 5am to 7am admission costs $20 per person, 7am to 8am is $15 per person, 8am to 9am is $12 per person, and then general admission, which costs $9 per person, kicks off at 9am.
We arrived at 7:43am (after stopping for iced coffee and bagels because food is fuel) and decided to wait until 8am to enter, saving us $3 each, but potentially barring us from those early bird deals. Arriving at the crack of dawn, when temperatures are cooler and the market is less crowded, is a huge plus. You’ll have access to the best selection and will be able to park closer to the venue. Your tired feet will thank you at the end of the day!
2. Bring a shopping cart, wagon or dolly, depending on the size of the item(s) you’re looking to buy
Right away you’ll notice a steady stream of fold-up shopping carts and kids’ pull-along wagons making their way to the ticket booths. These people were serious about thrifting and here I was holding a handbag that could hardly fit my wallet and water bottle. By the entry, there were a couple of vendors selling granny carts for $30 each, which isn’t outrageous, but you could definitely snag a better deal in LA’s Fashion District.
When choosing your chariot, consider what you’re planning to buy. In need of a sofa? Rent a van and bring along some friends. In the market for a coffee table? You’ll probably be okay with a mover’s dolly or a wagon. Shopping for nothing in particular? You can’t go wrong with a granny cart.
3. Resist the urge to look Insta-chic and dress for the unpredictable weather
The Rose Bowl Flea Market’s Instagram account is teeming with fashion-forward Angelenos, all filtered to the nines. But don’t fall victim to #fleafashion! Wear light layers, comfortable walking shoes, sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat. While early mornings can be downright chilly (by LA standards), the sun begins to beat down on the parking lot pavement around 10am. Sunscreen and a water bottle are highly recommended!
4. Go in with a game plan to avoid distractions
I read an insider tip online that there are a number of less-frequented furniture vendors hiding in the vintage clothing section across the river, so that’s where I headed first. Had I arrived at 6am, this may have been a worthwhile insight, but with only one hour to spare before the gates opened to the general public, I quickly realized how important it was to spend my time wisely. So I headed back over the bridge to the furniture section and promptly discovered the rattan coffee table of my dreams for only $45 (!!!).
Before arriving at the event, I narrowed my coffee table search to ‘something rattan, preferably round, or maybe a piece with a pedestal base.’ Having a rough idea of what I was looking for helped me scan the aisles and aisles of vendors more efficiently. Once you’ve shopped for the big items, then it’s okay to let yourself get distracted by the booth selling colorful pharmacy bottles from the 1880s. Hot tip: most vendors are happy to hold onto your items while you continue to shop. Just remember to jot down their aisle and booth number so you can track them down later when you’re ready to head home.
5. Know how to navigate the market (because there are 7 miles of aisles)
Because the flea market is held in a stadium parking lot, there are aisle and section markers to guide you along your thrifting journey. If you, like me, are oblivious to things that are right under your feet, you may not have noticed that the aisles are alphabetized. Vendors are grouped together by the types of items they are selling (here’s a handy map for reference), so it’s best to stick to the sections you are most interested in. You don’t want to lose steam perusing fidget spinners when you came for the vintage Levis! I also recommend zig-zagging the aisles so you don’t miss out on anything — it’s difficult to size up an aisle from the main thoroughfares.
6. Don’t hesitate when making a purchase because items sell super quickly
I passed on a woven plant stand (it looked exactly like this one from Urban Outfitters) because it was priced at $25 and I only wanted to pay $20. Fifteen minutes later, I felt a pang of regret and went back to grab it. This took approximately forever because I didn’t write down the aisle letter. By the time I got there, huffing and puffing, the stand had been snapped up by another buyer. It’s unnerving to make these split-second decisions, but in a flea market setting, that’s just the way it goes. You gotta buy it or be haunted by your indecision until the second Sunday of the following month.
7. Bring your own food and drinks if you hate overpaying and waiting in line
Even if you eat beforehand, after taking 17,000 steps you’ll be ravenous. Stave off hunger by packing high-protein energy bars or other compact snacks. Although I didn’t sample any of the $12 burritos, the food court smelled delicious. By 11:30am, there were long lines forming in front of every food stall and seating was limited. There are, however, other quiet areas around the perimeter of the stadium where you can take a break and get out of the sun. Be wary of overpaying for things like $15 VIP parking, $5 ATM fees and $3 bottled water. If you come prepared, you won’t get bamboozled!